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The Waters of Winter: A Traditional & Classical Chinese Medicine Perspective

When you read the word “water,” what does this conjure in your mind? Before you continue reading, perhaps you would like to write down the first few words that come to your mind?
Perhaps you thinks of a trickling stream in your backyard, the rushing of a great and majestic river, or the depth of the ocean and the great sea life that dwell there? Do you think of the water that you drink each day to maintain vital water balance within your body? Sadly, you may also think of the diseased waters, spoiled by pollution. All of these are valuable thoughts, when trying to understand the importance of the water element in Chinese Medicine.

When I speak of water, I consider many important associations drawn in both Traditional and Classical Chinese Medicine. Water is associated with the Kidneys and Bladder, the Winter season, and the emotion of Fear. In it’s relationship to the kidney and bladder organs, water (in the form of blood and body fluids) carries toxins that must be cleansed in the kidneys and excreted through the process of micturition, or urination. When acting in health, the kidneys maintain a proper fluid balance in the body, while the bladder stores and helps with the process of excretion. This perspective is, of course, aligned with the Western Medicine perspective.

Moving beyond western medicine, however, we learn that water is associated with winter. Why not spring, when the rains come, or summer when we play more in water? Well, winter is a time for slowing down. It is a time to turn inward and listen quietly. In this way, winter is a sacred time of depth, stillness, and listening. Think of the vast ocean waters. Yes, there are great waves; yet, there are tremendous bodies of water that we don’t necessarily see changing in size, shape, and quantity with the unaided eye. Water moves in and out of rivers, lakes, and oceans, just as cells die and new cells are born on a daily basis. We simply do not see this intricate activity without the aid of microscopes or time-elapsed photography.

The depth of water catches us, holds us buoyant, and reminds us that we are very small in the grande nature of this planet and her millennia of activity. For many, this conjures an intangible and strange fear of our finite nature. In a more tangible and real sense, how many people do you know, perhaps yourself included, who experience a fear of what lies beneath the surface of the water. Are there water snakes or sharks that may attack? I am often relieved to hear that I am not the only one with such thoughts! Perhaps this fear points to the archetypal mystery of water as a place where we confront our fears of death, dying, and letting go; after all, it is only in the letting go that new life and growth will eventually emerge.

So, we let ourselves go into the depths of the water, into the depths of the winter in our lives, and we face our deepest fears of letting go of this life as we know it. In the water, our kidneys find nourishment that is needed for cleansing, just as in the darkness of winter, our kidneys await the rest that will restore our energy for the spring that awaits. We surrender to the fear of emptiness and, instead, trust in the new growth that lies around the corner! Water reminds us to quiet our minds, enter the stillness, and listen for that still sure voice that comes from within the depth of our psyche. It is this voice that contains our own wisdom for moving forward and evolving in the precious lifetime we are given. Out of this wisdom, will emerge the movement of Wind in the spring!

Other Interesting Water Element Associations

Taste: Salty (softens hard masses and helps constipation & swelling)
Color: Dark Blue or Black
Sound: Groaning (this can be a beneficial emotional release sound for the kidneys)
Tissue: Bones (as we age, kidney energy declines and the bones often grow brittle)
Orifices: Ears (tinnitus may be a sign of Kidney Deficiency)

May peace be upon you!